July 2011

Christopher Merkel



Last month, having very much enjoyed my reading of The Good-Bye Angel by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, I eagerly purchased and read a copy of Brandão’s book Anonymous Celebrity. In a chapter titled “Rescuing the Anonymous: Kerouac’s Girlfriends,” Brandão’s narrator describes the meeting of “the pioneers of the Beat Generation” in Mexico City where, “the four read poems at the university, drank, got high… got bored, and finally decided to go home.” “Ennui,” he continues, “(Baudelaire’s spleen) was a characteristic of the beatniks, instigated by the nausea (the Sartrean variety) provoked in them by American society,” and it was at reading that passage that I remembered the old library copy of Nausea that I’d gotten at a friend’s moving sale and resolved to finally read it.

I can’t remember if I lost light at the park where I was reading with my big can of Hamm’s or if I just gave in to distraction -- the enormous absurdity of existence and all that -- but I closed Nausea with six pages left to go and shelved the book without ever reading them (“drank… got bored, and finally decided to go home,” essentially). Although I can’t exactly say the book made me sick (despite the easy pun available in the title), it certainly bored me; and not because it’s about boredom, but because so much culture since the second half of the twentieth century has been steeped in the general idea of Jean-Paul Sartre that, for me, reading him wasn’t particularly revealing. But having made what I considered to be a considerable effort, I felt entitled to some fun, and even if Brandão had put me in a difficult position with the Sartre thing, I’d enjoyed both The Good-Bye Angel and Anonymous Celebrity and so decided to follow them up by reading another Brazilian author and got myself a copy of House of the Fortunate Buddhas by João Ubaldo Ribeiro.

And what absolute fun. The House of the Fortunate Buddhas is about sex. Or sexing, maybe -- and definitely in the popular idiomatic sense of having it -- because, although it’s certainly not un-intellectual, the book is much less an intellectualized theory of sexuality than it is a celebration of the will to get it on. In other words, it’s about giving oneself over to desire. Or, better, to lust. And that’s the one of the seven that Ribeiro chose when he was commissioned to write a text for a series of novels on the deadly sins.

Ribeiro’s text is a “factual narrative in which only the names of most of the people have been changed,” delivered by, “a 68-year-old woman born in the state of Bahia and now a resident of Rio de Janeiro. She authorized [Ribeiro] to print the text as [his] own, although she preferred that [he] reveal its true origin.” Or so goes the fictional conceit that Ribeiro gives as a preface to the woman’s story, which the author says he transcribed from a set of tapes that were left with the doorman at the building where he worked at the time. That the narrator of the monologue that comprises the body of House of the Fortunate Buddhas is speaking is an important element of the text, the fact of which we’re specifically reminded by the narrator after we’re told about the tapes by the author. “So, fine: preface. I decided to give my testimony orally instead of in writing mainly because it’s impossible to write about sex, at least in Portuguese, without coming off like a prostitute who’s just been asked to ‘talk dirty’ for the twentieth time in the same day.” That and, “it’s just more natural when you say it out loud.” “And, let’s see, why else use a tape recorder? I wish I could give you some really good answers… something really labyrinthine but inane, like a psychiatrist or a sociologist would say… But, sorry, I don’t know how to talk like that.”

Talking about sex, however, certainly comes naturally to the narrator, whose testimony includes frankly and fondly told stories about adultery, incest and swinging. I won’t give specifics, and not because of any shyness or inhibitions on my part, but for my fear that a clumsy third hand account of any of them wouldn’t do justice to the refinement and respectability of the text, even if the narrator herself makes it clear early on that she’s abandoned hope for a refined or respectable readership. “My original title was, but no, I changed my mind… it would be lost on people who’ve never read Choderlos de Laclos.” (And it would have been lost on me.) “There’s no point in trying to be refined if I’m going to be read Here, There, and Wherever… so away goes my refined title.” And so she defers to the House of the Fortunate Buddhas, a temple that the narrator tells us she saw in a dream, a temple with two figures inside, one male, one female, having sex, and the visitors to the temple rubbing the figures’ genitals in veneration -- a probably fictional conceit that the narrator describes in preface to her story after Ribeiro, the ventriloquist, has given his.

It’s fictional brilliance, and despite her frequently stated distaste for analysts and commentators, Ribeiro’s narrator is keenly aware of the modes of modern cultural discourse and makes no attempts to hide her intelligence. “What exactly are we calling this, eh, project? How about a socio-historico-literary pornographic testimony? Or sociohistoricoliterarypornographic, all run together… which is how they’d do it in German, very pretty.” But back to those two Buddhas. “House of the Fortunate Buddhas. Yes, that’s good, that’s good for a lot of reasons, but particularly because it doesn’t mean anything, like all good literary titles. Some guy will see it and wonder, ‘Why Buddhas?’ And he’ll be intrigued, as they say.” Ironically, the title turned me off for just that reason, namely that it seemed to promise a lot of uncomfortable beatnik style Orientalism, and I wouldn’t have considered the book had it not been released in translation by Dalkey Archive Press, the same publisher as had put out the two books I’d read by Brandão.

But I enjoyed the irony after finding out from the jacket copy that the book was nothing like what its title seemed to promise and then had read far enough to have the narrator say so herself. Her goal was to confront the “stupidity and backwardness” of the masses, specifically as it pertained to them censoring themselves on sex, and so her title needed to have mass appeal. And maybe she would have mocked my self-satisfaction had she known it. It was, after all, beside the point. Or perhaps not, because, as I’ve said, she does know what she’s doing; and she’s smart about it and knows that too. She isn’t, however, boastful, nor does she intend her testimony as a legacy (“none of that petit-bourgeois bullshit”). “I consider myself God-sent, seriously. But I don’t have a big head because of it; if anything, I’m humble,” she says after telling the story of how, upon her return to Brazil from the United States and directly after fellating him, she denied her uncle the anal sex that she’d promised him in exchange for his paying for her to study in Los Angeles. “Is there any greater sadist, in the best sense, than God? You don’t have to read Sartre, who was once the be-all and end-all, just listen to some barstool philosophizing.” If only I’d heeded it when I’d given myself that same advice.

Ribeiro’s manipulation of his narrator is in fact so tight that I sometimes wondered whether the calculated candor of the woman’s testimony was intended to encourage sympathy or just the opposite. Was Brazil so self-deceivingly prudish? Or was this woman herself a caricature for an over-sexed and self-obsessed society? But no, the book needn’t be about anything but lust, and it needn’t be any less straightforward than the narrator tells us that it is. She does, however, express a desire to liberate words that follows from her desire to liberate herself, which also informs her decision to speak her words instead of writing them. “Ridiculous, pathetic, but ineluctable, words are in fact a mystery,” she says after lamenting the privilege of the written word over speech. “Someday I’m going to write a crazy book… in which the words can detonate, explode in any kind of meaning, provoke reactions of all types.” But then she immediately excuses herself for a bout of laughter: “I felt, can’t say why, sort of like Lacan, declaiming that disjointed and unintelligible asininity… [but] I’ve never been taken in by any of those con games that confuse unintelligibility and boringness with profundity.”

Ribeiro plays his own game, which might be obtuse but is not at all boring, by having his narrator say so. House of the Fortunate Buddhas is very much concerned with language, even if its narrator is quick to declare its theorists phonies. Or, again, maybe not. It could be just about sex. But I was nonetheless tickled by the woman’s next statement. “Sartre did have a few things, but he can shove Being and Nothingness up his ass.” And she might very well have meant her charge literally. (Regardless, I won’t be taking the time to read it.)

For all its structural intricacies and the necessary attention the book focuses on its narrator’s delivery, I imagine that the task of translating House of the Fortunate Buddhas was not a simple one for Clifford E. Landers, but I also suspect that he must have enjoyed his work for the playfulness of the text and its intentions. Landers’s translation represents yet another transcription of the tapes that contained the original monologue of House of the Fortunate Buddhas and necessarily involved all of the same efforts that Ribeiro describes in his preface: “the division of the text into sections and paragraphs… the insertion of rare passages in direct discourse and various corrections of punctuation… without altering the expressive form.” I would be especially intrigued to know how Landers dealt with those, “countless ‘grammatical errors,’” which were retained in the original transcription, “with the intention of preserving as much as possible the orality of the original.” Ribeiro’s preface intentionally betrays some of the craft of his novel, but it also serves as an instructive reminder of the many considerations involved in the craft of translation. And for Landers, working with something so unique as a (spoken) socio-historico-literary pornographic testimony must have been exciting in itself, and he achieves the task without resorting to any of the cold, clinical or romantic euphemisms that its narrator hoped to avoid by giving her testimony orally instead of in writing. Like I said, absolute fun. It’s intelligent and sexy, too. The perfect partner.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas turned out also to be an unexpected invitation to revisit literature from Quebec (which I’ll admit I somewhat callously abandoned to introduce Brandão and The Good-Bye Angel). Ribeiro’s book quickly reminded me of my intention to read Whore by French Canadian Nelly Arcan, the title of which alone seemed to promise decent material for comparison with House of the Fortunate Buddhas. I vaguely recalled a synopsis of Arcan’s book so didn’t consider my assumptions ungrounded, and the association I made was ultimately justified as well, or at least to an extent, as the narrator/protagonist of Whore is also a lone female delivering a testimony on sex. I didn’t, however, expect that the two books would be so dissimilar and offer so much by way of contrast.

The narrator of Whore, who goes by the name Cynthia (a name she borrows for work from her only sister, who would have been older had she not died in infancy), is a prostitute in her early twenties. In addition to her youth, she has beauty on her side, and she’s well compensated for her work at the brothel that overlooks the university she attends in Montreal. Originally from the country, prostitution was an opportunity for Cynthia to “slip out of [her] hick’s clothing” and join the active roster of the big city. She has daddy issues. And mommy ones, too. Her father, “who didn’t sleep and believed in God, that was all he did, believe in God, predict the worst for everybody and prepare himself for the Last Judgment,” well, he’s waiting for the end of the world, and the big city seems to be showing him every sign of its coming. Her mother sleeps, and that’s all. Not much fun.

Cynthia is as prolifically sexed (although not necessarily as diversely) as the woman who narrates House of the Fortunate Buddhas (specifically, both recall the formative importance of bouncing on uncles’ knees while those uncles got hard underneath them), but Cynthia’s experience hasn’t been nearly as empowering or liberating. Her expressions are just as candid as her counterpart’s, but her tone is resigned and reflects an all-encompassing alienation that bears no resemblance to the proud flippancy of the voice in Ribeiro. Cynthia even sees a psychoanalyst, a man for whom she lusts as the image of a real father, someone completely unlike her own, that man whom she expects to see come through her door at the brothel one day, the truest representative of all those fathers who aren’t fathers, the whoring patriarchy at large. Cynthia waits for her mother’s death so that she can assume her place in the cycle. She will continue kowtowing to the double standard of the beauty myth until she’s too old to imagine herself, “the only one of her type to become happy, the sole Smurfette in the village in the midst of her hundred smurfs,” too old, in other words, to play the happy whore.

In contrast to Ribeiro’s speech as writing motif, Arcan gives us Cynthia’s story in highly stylized fragments comprised of long, poetic (though not exactly lyrical) sentences that move fluidly from place to place and subject to subject, out of time, along a stream of free associations within Cynthia’s mind, their haunting poesy handled deftly in English translation by Bruce Benderson. Whereas Ribeiro’s narrator is didactic and irreverent, Cynthia is introspective and submissive, not uninhibited, but very much suppressed. In House of the Fortunate Buddhas, the narrator sees machismo as oppressing not women but men (“because even today they’re surrounded by a cortege of phantasmagoric women, real and imaginary, ever ready to draw and quarter them if they catch them straying from these standards”), whereas in Whore, the expectations and power dynamics that flow from those same standards are what Cynthia sees as keeping her trapped in the self-destructive dream of the Smurfette: “If someone strangles me in a fit of rage because my very special way of keeping silent outlasts the most cocksure of speeches, it will be to get turned on by my sow’s squeals and my scarlet face trying to escape in every direction.”

On that point, it seems important to aknowledge that although his narrator is female, Ribeiro is not. House of the Fortunate Buddhas is a book about a woman who finds fulfillment in libertinism, but it was written by a man. As such, it’s not unthinkable that the text could be read as an exposition of the same male fantasy of the always eager nymphomaniac that keeps Cynthia busily employed but that also perpetuates her repression. I didn’t personally read House of the Fortunate Buddhas in that light, just I as didn’t take Whore as an endorsement of a sex-negative femenism or Cynthia’s depression for a general criticism of prostitution. Nor do I think that Brazilian society is generally less sexually repressed or French Canadian society any more so. But, that aknowledgment did help me recognize that both books, for all of their narrative dissimilarities, are conceptually quite similar, both of them having as their points of origin the recognition of the widespread anxiety of sexual repression. The women in both books are routinely sexing, and both know, for themselves and for the world, that that’s not going to change. They are, essentially, the opposite sides of a two headed coin.

And that’s enough to consider in itself without any additional existential angst. But Cynthia does struggle. I’m not unsympathetic to her situation, but I do have to agree with one of her johns (and his name is actually Jean): “Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, about magic, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the nausea you experience when faced with what’s alive, faced with what grows without any thought of its place in the history of ideas.” Cynthia shouldn’t tell me either, but I suppose it’s understandable. That’s what they give you when you’re an undergraduate. Unfortunately, I don't have the surety or the credentials to suggest any remedy for Cynthia's depression, but I could definitely recommend her a book.